Library of Birmingham


Erection of public library (Use Class D1), together with partial demolition, refurbishment and extension of existing theatre (Sui Generis), including low carbon energy centre and associated landscaping and highway works  

Photo by Christian Richters

The Library of Birmingham is not an understated building, it proudly takes its place within Centenary Square amongst Baskerville House and The Rep. Whilst appearing dominating at first, it helps to be able to enclose the square. What was once a surface car park now has purpose.

Designed by Francine Houben and the team at Mecanoo this is a Library that will hopefully adapt with the city, and not fall by the wayside like the three others the city has had all within a short distance of this site.

The modern library is no longer solely the domain of the book – it is a place with all types of content and for all types of people.

The building aims to be a place where people can continue the journey of learning, and it shows that it is more than a place where books live. It’s a destination, a meeting place, a cafe, a viewing platform, a cinema, and of course the features we come to expect of a library.

As a library of the now and also the future, it’s an adaptable space that understands that the needs of the people it serves in 50 years time will undoubtably be different from what they are now.

After viewing the construction of this building on nearly a daily basis for three years, it was interesting to see the way it connects to the city from the inside and the terraces.  It brings a platform which we can observe, and understand the city we are in.  The ability to have the viewing galleries and outdoor space accessible to all is empowering.

Whilst the Cube may have first offered the people of Birmingham it’s views from the Marco Pierre White restaurant, it did not make it accesible to all. The Library succeeds as it belongs to the people.

The striking thing with the library from the exterior is the frieze, the filigree pattern, which is an ‘ode to the circle’, a connection to Birmingham’s reputation as the Jewellery Quarter.

It is however, also reminiscent of the frieze that was present in Mecanoo’s unsuccessful  submission for the International Criminal Court.  It is not unusual that an unused design feature has appeared again, designs are built upon and recycled, and either way it works well for this building and for the context it is set against.

When you step inside the building you begin to understand the amount of space that has been created. The multitude of levels of this building connect across the open atrium that has been created by using a series of overlapping rotundas.  At the very top you are connected to the sky, and a lift reminiscent of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ready to burst out of the building.

It’s not all about heading skywards, as the building leads you down into the ground with its multitude of ‘ground’ floors and out towards the amphitheatre you can head back and observe the Library from a different vantage point.

This is designed to a be a performance space, and is in the area home to noise (both the children’s and music section). Francine said that it was ‘Essential for a building to have a piano’ and perhaps we will see it used here.

This building may not be for everyone, but it is for me. There is a lot to see and explore, and come the official opening I will be back for more.

Photo by Christian Richters

Paradise Circus Redevelopment


Outline planning application (all matters reserved save for access) for demolition of all buildings on the site (save for the Joseph Chamberlain Memorial) and commercial led mixed use redevelopment of up to 170,012 square metres gross internal floorspace, comprising offices (Use Class B1a), retail and leisure units (Use Classes A1/A2/A3/A4/A5/D1/D2), concert hall (D2), energy centre (Sui Generis), together with a hotel of up to 250 bedrooms (Use Class C1), car parking, highways works (to include the closure of eastern arm of Paradise Circus gyratory), public realm improvements and associated works including alterations to public rights of way.

The Paradise Circus redevelopment is a contentious one, mainly due to the presence of the Birmingham Central Library which was designed by John Madin and is set to be demolished if the plans get approved.  Though the building has been recommended for local listing by English Heritage, it has never achieved that status and the council have a Certificate of Immunity order on the building, preventing it from being listed.

The council have established an exclusivity agreement with Argent, who were behind the creation of Brindleyplace, with a view to sign a joint venture relationship for the redevelopment of the site once planning permission has been granted.
Whilst we await the final decision regarding the outline, it was interesting to see how the current plans look from a historical perspective.  As well as seeing how the proposal brings the area back to the public, both from an ease of access routes (especially down Congreve Passage to Summer Row) and also improvements to the public realm with two new squares, and the improvement to Chamberlain Square.

Town Hall and Council House - March 1921 (Britain From Above)

Whilst the future of the Central Library is an evocative topic, it cannot be ignored that the site plan does not facilitate access through it, or around it.  Areas such as Fletchers Walk, Paradise Place towards Summer Row, and Congreve passage are not the most accessible. Looking at the plans it shows that consideration has been given to the pedestrian flow, and there are a lot more ways to navigate across the site.
One of the main changes to the road layout is the closure of eastern arm of Paradise Circus gyratory (i.e the bit that runs under the Library).  There are also quite a lot of roads that would need to be reconfigured because of this.
Recently on 11 October 2012 the council Planning Committee met, and an item on the agenda was to discuss issues related to the planning application [PDF], this revealed some potential S106 planing obligations including:
  • Transport contribution – to include works to facilitate the next phases of Metro and contributions to public transport including Interconnect (new bus shelters and totem signage)
  • Public realm improvements – in particular to Chamberlain Square, Town Hall surroundings and Centenary Square – approximately £2.65m
  • Contributions to Wayfinding signage both into and around the site – £180,000
  • Easy Row subway improvements linking through to Arena Central – approximately £150,000.